After spending three weeks in Naivasha, Kenya, you might expect me to know a little bit more Swahili than I do. But, in reality, these past few weeks have been non-stop work and, since the users for our pilot study here are Muslims, I actually have picked up almost as many Arabic phrases as ones in Swahili!
Let me back up a bit. How did I find myself in Kenya during the middle of my gap year in South America? It all started when our toilet, SafiChoo, won Georgia Tech’s InVenture Prize competition and we suddenly found ourselves with $25,000 to make our dream come true: prototype and pilot SafiChoo in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya near the South Sudan border. If this region sounds familiar to you, it should: the camp has made international news due to the influx of more than 35,000 South Sudanese refugees fleeing government-perpetrated violence since December.
Anyways, given this current humanitarian crisis and our firm belief that SafiChoo can change lives, we were frustrated (to say the least) that we lacked funds to pilot SafiChoo to help alleviate the imminent sanitation disaster in the already overcrowded camp. So, flash forward to the winning moment: we were shocked, humbled, grateful, ecstatic…and wondering how we were going to make a pilot study happen on such short notice. So, cue me, the member who wasn’t on stage since, after graduating in December, I set off for nine months of hiking, researching, and working in Antarctica/South America. Less than a week after our team won InVenture, I purchased a flight (LIM-AMS-NBO) and, less than five days after that, I landed it Nairobi. It was go time.
I was met at the airport by members of SafiChoo’s original sponsor, Sanivation. After a quick coffee stop to postpone my jetlag, we were on our way to our first meeting—less than 1.5 hours after I landed! Following a Sanergy facilities tour and a meeting with its founder, Ani Vallabhaneni, we headed to a second meeting at CDC-Kenya’s Nairobi office. A few hours later, we finally left for Naivasha, Sanivation’s headquarter city and the site of our first (of two) SafiChoo pilots.
Naivasha is gorgeous. Situated next to Lake Naivasha and surrounded by national parks (including the infamous Hell’s Gate), it felt like paradise after more than 40 hours of traveling. But, given that my time was limited, there was no time for lounging around: visiting families, material selection, design alterations, and actual prototype construction began at 8am the morning after my arrival in Naivasha.
In the week prior to my arrival, we had made the decision to hire a local Kenyan, Dickson, to help jumpstart the user selection and prototyping processes and, once I arrived, to provide support for building and implementation. We couldn’t have made a better choice with Dickson. Smart, sensible, and personable, Dickson already had already mobilized five interested families for our pilot before I even arrived!
Over the next two weeks, Dickson and I worked together to design and build a second generation SafiChoo toilet that was better suited for integration with Sanivation’s novel collection and solar treatment system. It was an amazing experience to test the feasibility of the design in its actual region of intended use, and I couldn’t be more excited about this second iteration design. Not only is it easier to manufacture, cutting the projected cost of SafiChoo in half, but it is also incredibly intuitive and has already received positive user feedback.
Perhaps one of my favorite parts about my time in Kenya, other than getting my hands dirty with the engineering work that I had missed so much while abroad, was getting to spend time with the five families selected for our pilot in Naivsha. All five of the families varied in size and gender composition, but all of them were so excited about SafiChoo and truly opened their hearts and homes to me and Dickson. It was an honor spending time with them, whether just sharing some chipate, chatting about our cultures and families, or teaching each other words in Swahili/Arabic/English.
As I quickly found out, sanitation is a huge issue in Naivasha. Most families share their latrine with nearby families (in many cases, up to five families per latrine!) and, since most houses are rented from Kenyans residing in Nairobi, often times the owner does not adequately clean or fix deteriorating latrines. As a result, the floors of all of the latrines I visited were covered in urine, feces, water, toilet paper, and bugs. Many of the latrines also did not have functioning doors or doors that locked.
Just talking with these families about their current latrines and in particular, talking with these families’ young children, who often have to defecate on newspaper and bring it into the latrine since the holes are too large, was more than enough to motivate me to ensure that SafiChoo is a viable, affordable future sanitation option. Everyone deserves a clean and safe place to poop. Sanitation is a basic right.
My three weeks in Naivasha went by way too fast, but I am excited to say that, despite some technical difficulties, we were able to officially launch our pilot! Although the pilot only has one family for the next two weeks (until the rest of the toilet seats arrive from the US), the feedback we have already received from Hasan and his family has been invaluable. I cannot wait to incorporate his ideas into making an even better SafiChoo in time for the Kakuma pilot start date in late May!